A Virgin Atlantic passenger jet powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) took off from London on a flight to New York yesterday, as the aviation world seeks to showcase the potential of low-carbon options to secure its future.
As the world decarbonises, airlines are banking on fuel made from waste to reduce their emissions by up to 70%, enabling them to keep operating before electric and hydrogen-powered air travel becomes a reality in the decades to come.
Aviation accounts for an estimated 2–3% of global carbon emissions. SAF is key towards reducing those emissions, but it is costly, at about three to five times as much as regular jet fuel right now, and accounts for less than 0.1% of total global jet fuel in use today.
The flight, operated by a Virgin Boeing 787 powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, is the first time a commercial airliner has flown long haul on 100% SAF.
But it is a demonstration flight, with no paying passengers or cargo, and will fly back to Britain using regular jet fuel.
Engines in commercial use are not yet certified to fly on more than 50% SAF and the vast majority of flights blend in a much lower amount of SAF with traditional jet fuel.
Virgin Atlantic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, the airline’s CEO Shai Weiss, and Britain’s transport minister Mark Harper are among the passengers on board.
Dubbed by Virgin as Flight100, it comes days before the start of COP28 climate talks in Dubai on Thursday and follows the successful transatlantic crossing by a Gulfstream G600 business jet using the same fuel last week.
SAF is already used in jet engines as part of a blend with traditional kerosene, but after successful ground tests, Virgin and its partners Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP and others won permission to fly using only SAF.
The fuel used to power yesterday’s flight is mostly made from used cooking oil and waste animal fat mixed with a small amount of synthetic aromatic kerosene made from waste corn, Virgin Atlantic said.
It is not the first attempt to stage demonstration flights and draw attention to efforts to reduce aviation's emissions.
A UK military version of the Airbus A330 airliner flew on the fuel last December, fuel supplier Air bp said. Dubai’s Emirates said last week it had flown an A380, the world’s largest airliner, using SAF for one of four engines.
Many European airlines – including Virgin, IAG-owned British Airways, and Air France – have said they want to be using 10% SAF by 2030, and the industry’s goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 relies on that share rising to 65%.
Rolls-Royce’s CEO, Tufan Erginbilgic, said SAF was the only solution to decarbonise commercial flights in the medium term.
“I think on the big planes, I’m talking about commercial planes if you like, really the next 15 to 20 years solution is genuinely SAF. We are making our engines compatible with SAF, so that transformation actually takes place,” he said on Tuesday after announcing his strategy for the engine maker.
Analysts say the 2030 target looks challenging given SAF’s small volumes and its high cost.
In October, the head of IAG warned that there was more than a 90% risk the industry would not meet the EU mandate for SAF availability in 2025. Others have said governments haven’t provided enough industry support.
“Europe’s airlines are committed to a new era of flying – investing €169 billion (R3.5 trillion) in lower carbon technology – but we need governments to step up now and ensure Europe takes its seat as a global leader in SAF,” said Rania Georgoutsakou, who heads industry group Airlines for Europe.
Environmental advocacy group Stay Grounded called the flight "a greenwashing distraction."
“(Fuel substitutes) are nowhere close to being scalable in the necessary time frame to avoid climate collapse. What is urgently needed is to reduce the burning of fossil jet fuels, which means reducing flights wherever possible,” said Magdalena Heuwieser, who represents the network.
The aviation industry hopes that the Virgin Atlantic flight will highlight to governments the need for them to provide financial support to make SAF more readily available.
Virgin said the engines on the flight would be drained of SAF and tested before it returns to service using regular fuel.